[media-credit name=”Credit: By Ezra Shaw, Getty Images” align=”alignright” width=”242″][/media-credit]The last few weeks have been tough on Kurt Busch. From struggles with performance, saying the wrong things and getting suspended, he finally had a nice Sunday drive with no controversy.
Busch came home third in his No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. The bare red and white machine battled with the much better funded Michael Waltrip and Tony Stewart Racing teams and held its own. For Busch, it was bittersweet. A well-earned finish but a case of what could have been, too.
“It was just a full weekend of road racing,” said Busch afterwards. “It was a solid day yesterday and even better day today. To have a nice, steady pace and to have smooth pit strategy from my Phoenix Racing guys reminded me a lot of last year and I thought I could deliver for them. We were in contention. We made it all the way to the final restart and today with all those long green flag runs, I thought the race would play into our favor.”
The No. 51 Chevrolet was better suited for the longer runs, which he certainly showed. The defending race winner gave it his best shot as he led two laps and remained firmly in the top five for the second half of the event. Slowly chipping away, making a run at what would have been an improbably victory.
“I just kept thinking, ‘He’s a dirt late model racer from the Midwest; there’s no way he’s going to be able to run the road course,’” Busch said of winner Clint Bowyer. “And he did. He did great. That car and our car, I think we separated ourselves from the pack today.”
Then came the one moment in 112 laps that Busch would love to have back. One moment that took him from contender to third. While making a run on Bowyer for the lead late in the race, Busch hit the inside tire barrier in turn 11.
The contact seemed much harder than in years past. Instead of the tires giving away, they stayed put. Busch’s machine suffered damage in the front and ended up breaking a bar in the rear of the car. Suddenly his 51 was slightly swinging back and forth, right before the final restart of the day.
It ended up being the difference. Busch couldn’t do anything with Bowyer and he lost the spot to Tony Stewart. Afterwards Busch found that the sets of tires that sit on the inside of turn 11 were bolted down, no longer as giving as they had been in the past.
“Today we came home third,” he said. “Chevrolet and Monster Energy and Tag Heuer, our three big brands with us this year – I’m a bit choked up. I just made a little mistake their in turn 11. Those tires have never been bolted down, ever and I clipped a set of tires and it broke the front suspension and the rear panhard bar and I couldn’t compete for the win after that; so a mistake there.
“But if we pulled into Victory Lane with all-red car and no sponsor, here in California, I thought it was team tiger blood with Charlie Sheen around.”
Busch backed up his solid eighth place finish on Saturday in the Nationwide Series race at Road America. Driving for little brother Kyle’s team, Busch flexed his muscle and sharpened his road course skills. Along with his Sonoma win last season Busch won at Watkins Glen in the NNS while subbing for then injured teammate Brad Keselowski.
This time around he nearly did it again. And it would have been a whole bigger for Busch, who was clearly choked up.
“When you show up and you’re a third of the budget and you almost bring it to Victory Lane, you can’t say that one guy does it out here,” Busch said. “It takes a full team effort. But I really want to deliver for my guys today, and being that close and make one mistake, it’s a tough game. That’s why it’s Sprint Cup.”
Not to mention the team that has stuck behind him through the thick and the thin. Sunday’s finish was the first top five for Busch in 2012, they remain 27th in points heading into Kentucky.
“They bring the best out in me,” said Busch of his Phoenix team. “This is a no nonsense group for a bunch of racers. The way this program feels is we are a bunch of boy scouts where we have to support each other and teach each other things and everybody has three jobs on this team.
“Yeah, the closest family atmosphere I’ve ever had to racing with Kyle and my dad. We are not blood brothers or anything and cut fingers and tough and go team tiger blood or anything, but it’s really a neat group. Nick’s [Harrison, crew chief] leadership is just so much fun just to follow him and be a part of.”